The Portuguese coastal route is the third most popular Camino de Santiago trail after the Camino Francés and the Portuguese Central, according to 2022 statistics from the Pilgrim Office in Santiago.
But does walking a non-traditional, scenery-based path along the coast still feel like a Camino de Santiago? That’s the question I asked myself as I walked on the Portuguese coastal route from Porto to Vigo in the middle of the beach holiday season.
In keeping a daily diary of the pilgrimage, I eventually found my answer.
Day 1: Porto to Vila Chã — 26km
A pre-dawn departure from Porto and it’s exciting to be back on the camino and to walk through a virtually empty city after it was bursting at the seams with tourists yesterday afternoon.
I take the alternative river exit and I’m glad I did, even though the absence of arrows at the outset of a camino is slightly disconcerting — not for wayfinding, because that’s quite obvious, but because it doesn’t help you land on the right side of ‘Does this feel like a camino?’ when there are no arrows. But soon I pass three Italian pilgrims and we exchange ‘bom caminhos’, and a camino it is.
Where the river meets the ocean at Foz do Douro is my favourite part of the stage, because there are lighthouses and fishermen and a surprisingly interesting fort to explore all to myself (not to mention the fabulously-named Instituto de Socorros a Náufragos — something like the ‘Shipwreck Rescue Institute’). Foz feels like a real place, unlike Matosinhos, which comes soon enough and is quite the shock.
There are beaches by now and it’s August so they’re jam-packed with holiday-makers, even though the beaches aren’t especially nice and are surrounded by industrial cranes and silos and ugly modern buildings. The beaches and umbrellas and people and development seem to go on forever, and by 9:15am I’ve already seen two Pizza Huts and this isn’t the Portugal I know. But there are arrows and a Lidl in Matosinhos so I take those little wins, stock up, and move on.
Then the boardwalks begin and the rhythm for the rest of the stage is set. Walking a camino on wooden planks is new for me and not my preferred surface but it’s still pretty easy walking because it’s not hot and you can’t exactly get lost on boardwalks. As I approach São Paio the holiday crowds start thinning out a bit and it seems more low key and there’s a nice estuary full of bird life, all of which is more to my liking.
Before I know it, I reach my destination, the fishing village of Vila Chã, and it’s not even 2pm yet and if that was really 26km, it was as much of a breeze as the one coming off the ocean.
Day 2: Vila Chã to Esposende — 31km
I leave at dawn this morning but sunrise is merely theoretical because it’s misty and overcast and it will remain that way (at least the overcast part) for all of today’s 31km. It’s the longest day I’ll have on this camino, and some might say it’s ‘perfect hiking weather’, but I’m not one of them, and I miss yesterday’s glorious sunshine.
After Vila Chã ends, the boardwalks begin but they can hardly be further from the ones that were packed with beach-goers yesterday. The boards are damp from the mist and visibility is poor and there’s an almost complete absence of people. I don’t see any pilgrims and hardly anyone at all until Vila do Conde, just the odd local jogger or dog-walker. I signed up for a solo camino and this morning I get one; after yesterday’s beach crowds, I enjoy the solitude.
Vila do Conde has a nice historic core with some old sandstone buildings and azulejos and although I’ve never been here before, it’s a familiar and welcome version of Portugal for me. The Igreja Matriz is closed but it has a magnificent late Gothic Manueline portal, so I stop in the square opposite (also familiar: Praça Vasco da Gama) and eat breakfast.
It’s only 9am when I leave Vila do Conde but I don’t have my camino legs under me yet and I feel sore already, barely a third of the way through my stage. Pushing on, Povoa do Varzim has a nice church half-dedicated to Santiago with an azulejo of the saint and quite a few people praying inside, but after that the town descends into today’s most touristy beach spot. After lunch, there are more boardwalks, a golf course, a vineyard or two (literally), almost a pine forest, no pilgrims, and plenty of cobblestones. If anything makes you long for boardwalks, it’s cobblestones — but it wouldn’t be a Portuguese camino without them.
Apúlia seems like a ghost town but the Igreja Matriz is open so I go in and I’m the only person there and I’m surprised by how much I like it. The interior artwork is all modern, which doesn’t usually do much for me, but I find the mosaics to be quite fascinating. There are four of them and they’re almost all black-and-white but each has a splash of a different colour that illuminates them and brings out each scene, and I’m happy with this little discovery.
By Fão I’m near the end of the stage, but I’m worn out so I stop at a bar for a drink and chat with two pilgrims for a while. We walk together for the last 2.5km to Esposende, where we’re all staying tonight (albeit in different places), and it’s good company.
The day finishes happily with pizza and cider on a nice square, so if this ends up being the least interesting stage on this camino, then I’ll take it.
Day 3: Esposende to Viana do Castelo — 25km
Early morning fog — again! — but thankfully it doesn’t last today. By about 8:30am, the sun breaks through and it turns into a beautiful day, and an easier one than yesterday for a solar-powered pilgrim.
One of the quirks of the ‘coastal’ camino is that a fair bit of it is not by the coast at all — that’s what the Senda Litoral is for — and the official route today between Esposende and Viana do Castelo is entirely inland with not a single boardwalk after the outskirts of Esposende.
The early part of the day is fairly unremarkable (towns and cobblestones) and I am lost in thought when I suddenly realise, about three hours into the stage, that I’m in a forest for the first time on this camino. It’s not the most amazing forest I’ve ever been in by any stretch of the imagination and it only lasts a few minutes and there’s a fair bit of eucalyptus, but despite all of that, I irrationally love it. There’s actual terrain and I can feel the earth under my feet and hear the flow of a nearby river, and this is what the camino is for me. The river crossing over a stone bridge is nice and although there’s an opportunity just after the bridge to head towards the coast, I stick with the inland route and am rewarded soon enough with another forest, which is not quite as thrilling as the first one but worth it all the same.
It’s also another day of churches and there are several on the trail that I like: Belinha for its quasi onion dome, rare in Portugal in general but somewhat common in this part of the country; Castelo do Neiva for its AD 862 inscription that shows it to be the earliest known sanctuary to Santiago outside Spain; and Anha for more surprisingly interesting modern art, this time stained-glass windows.
I arrive in Viana do Castelo by 2:30pm; it’s an attractive town with a picturesque historic centre, and it’s a good place to reflect and ponder over an afternoon drink at a garden kiosk. If the lesson from today is ‘the further inland you go, the more authentic a camino this is’, what does that mean for the coming days?
Day 4: Viana do Castelo to Caminha — 27km
Walking through an empty Viana do Castelo at dawn, with an orange tinge in the eastern sky and not a cloud in sight, the decision point comes early today. The official ‘coastal’ route is once again mostly inland, and there’s an obvious Senda Litoral alternative immediately after Viana that hugs the ocean. Despite my enjoyment of the interior route yesterday, today’s stage doesn’t sound exceptional, so I opt for the Litoral and I’m glad I did.
Early on, the coast is wild and rough, and, while it’s not exactly beautiful, I like it. Gronze describes today’s Litoral alternative as ‘sin flechas pero con playas’, but that’s only half right for the first 10 kilometres: there are no arrows, but there aren’t any beaches either. Instead, the coast is rocky and locals clamming outnumber sunbathers — and pilgrims — for the first couple of hours. The winding dirt path passes four mills (one recently restored, three not) and a couple of forts, and this is my favourite part of the day.
Later, the beaches appear and I take my shoes off and dip my toes into the (freezing) sea for the first time on this camino. Vila Praia de Âncora is the unappealing beach town of the day, where the coastal and Litoral paths meet back up, and I pass through quickly.
At Moledo, near the end of the stage, arrows take pilgrims onto the highway but I follow a recommended Gronze alternative and find myself in a sandy pine forest that resembles the Camino de Madrid except for the sound of the ocean to my left. When the forest ends, the body of water in front of me is no longer the Atlantic Ocean but the Minho River, and the land I can see on the other side is Galicia.
Day 5: Caminha to Oia — 16km
Sunrise over the Minho River affords one last glimpse of Portugal before I am whisked across the river by boat with three other pilgrims to continue my journey in a different land; on the other side of the river, which is now the Miño, awaits Spain.
Two minutes after disembarking from the boat, I’m taking a photo of a building by the shore whose faded grandeur is lit up by the sun’s first light, and a local man walks by and asks if I speak Spanish. When I say that I do, he tells me that the building was used as a concentration camp during the Spanish civil war. I look it up later and he’s right; according to one account I read, in just two months in the summer of 1938, 171 people were executed there. Later, I find out that the Oia monastery was also a concentration camp during the war.
The camino itself is different in Spain, too: right away there are hills and forests and mojones showing the distance to Santiago (165km), standard practice in Galicia but something I had almost forgotten about while walking in Portugal — especially on the Senda Litoral, where there aren’t even arrows, let alone distances.
After A Guarda, the coastline is rocky, like yesterday, but it’s more remote. Hills rise up directly from the ocean at times, leaving few settlements and forcing the camino away from the shore, sometimes onto the highway. It might not be the best day of walking but it’s a short stage and it’s sunny and I’m happy to be in Spain.
By midday I’m already in Oia, and that’s as far as I’m going today because I want to visit the monastery and align my stages for Baiona and Vigo over the next two days. As I arrive, a localised fog descends on the ruined monastery by the sea, and, as improbable as it may seem at times, right now it doesn’t take much imagination to picture a Celtic land on the Iberian peninsula.
Day 6: Oia to Baiona — 18km
I leave Oia in heavy fog, which lasts all morning and then some, but I don’t mind because I’m nearly at the end and this is Galicia and it’s real. The glamour of the boardwalks and packed beaches and Pizza Huts of just a few days ago seems a long way away now, as I walk alone alongside a remote, rocky and misty coastline and can’t even see the water at times. Yet I prefer this — for the solitude, the sense of exploration and discovery, and, yes, because it feels more like a camino.
I have an unusual goal today and there’s not much in the fog to distract me from thinking about it. About 12km into the stage, I forego the arrows urging me inland and stay on the coast for another half an hour to reach the ‘beach of the crystals’, which I only know about because another pilgrim came this way a couple of weeks ago and wrote about it. The crystals are, in fact, small pieces of sea glass, of various colours but mostly clear and green, smoothed and frosted and scattered all over this tiny beach. It’s quite fascinating, and I stay for a while, eat a cobbled together Sunday lunch consisting of gas station snacks, and look past the crystals out into the ocean as far as the eye can see — which is not very far on a day like this.
After I leave the beach, the fog that has lingered all day completely clears in 10 minutes, the Galician coast suddenly reveals itself, and my destination, Baiona, looms in the distance. I walk for an hour in the sun and reach my albergue, but by the time I have a shower, rest, and am ready to go out and explore the castle, the fog is back and I can barely see the crenellations.
‘It comes and goes,’ the hospitalero says matter-of-factly about the fog, and people seem to barely notice it as they continue to take their Sunday afternoon strolls and lay out on the two small city beaches. But I can’t help but think about what an odd existence this must be, having your town literally disappear from view for hours at a time, at any time of day, in the middle of summer.
And just as I’m writing this on a park bench in the fog at 8:30pm, the sun breaks through, the sky turns blue out of nowhere, I get my photo of the castle, and all is right with the world.
Day 7: Baiona to Vigo — 25km
It’s foggy again as I set out this morning but it isn’t nearly as thick as yesterday, and at this point the fog has become an inseparable part of this camino — and of this mystical land. By 11am, the fog clears and it’s sunny for the rest of the walk.
This is the last day of my camino, and that’s usually accompanied by a sense of excitement at approaching Santiago. But today I’m only going to Vigo, a large and unattractive city whose best feature might be its good transport connections with Lisbon. On one hand, this will be a somewhat anticlimactic end to this little camino; on the other, I can enjoy the walk without being consumed by my impending arrival, because, really, I don’t want to arrive. And I’m not the only one; at one point today, I see a pilgrim laying on the beach, propped up by her backpack, reading a book.
From A Ramallosa, I take the coastal variant, as do quite a few others. It’s a nice path, passing a few local, low-key beaches and some cruzeiros to remind me where I am.
As I approach Vigo in the early afternoon, the city is fortunately hidden by coves and bays and I don’t actually see it until I’m basically in the outskirts. And then I have to walk through an urban jungle for an hour, but it’s not bad and there’s some street art to look at and before I know it, I’m at my accommodation and my camino is over.
As for the question I’ve been pondering throughout this pilgrimage — ‘Does this feel like a camino?’ — I think the answer lies inside each individual pilgrim more than anywhere else. If you take the Senda Litoral at every opportunity and stay overnight in the touristy beach towns, I suspect it doesn’t feel much like a camino. And if you’re just here for the ocean, you’d be better off on the Rota Vicentina, which is both more remote and more spectacular.
But if you look for the camino here, you’ll find it — in the monastery of Oia, where monks fired canons at pirates from the patio that also served as the pilgrim route; in the ninth-century church inscription mentioning Santiago in Castelo do Neiva; and in those quintessential and special markers of Galician culture: the cruzeiros and the shells and the hórreos and, yes, even the fog.
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